Origins Of Cumbia Dancing

Cumbia is part of Colombia’s national heritage.

Cumbia’s name comes from the Guinean word cumbè (festival or celebration), imported into Caribbean coastal Colombia by Africans during the 17th century Spanish Colonial period. A blending of African and indigenous Amerindian peoples with Spanish influences helped develop cumbia’s rhythms and music, merging three cultural components into a single style.


Cumbia refers to an indigenous Colombian folk dance and its music. It emerged as a courtship dance that combined African drums, Indian dances and local melodies. Today, cumbia represents Colombian national dance and music.

African Tradition

As supplies of indigenous Amerindian labor for the harsh mine work became insufficient for the Spanish colonialists, they imported African slaves to increase the labor force. Beginning as a social and courtship dance practiced privately among the slaves in Colombia’s Caribbean region to retain their African heritage, the performance included drums and claves—pairs of hardwood sticks clapped together to make a hollow sound.

Indigenous Influence

African slave populations lived and worked alongside Colombia’s enslaved indigenous Amerindian population from the Koquis and Kuna tribes. When allowed to celebrate certain holidays and special occasions, the Amerindian instruments (güiros, millo flutes and gaita flutes) blended with the African drums and rhythms but the lyrics were of their common language: Spanish.


Cumbia’s exact birthplace is the subject of debate. Palenque de San Basilio claims the slaves danced behind the ocean walls there at night in secret. However, El Banco, a town in the upper valley of the Magdalena River declares itself cumbia’s focal point. Colombians from the entire Caribbean region claim ownership of the dance. Ingrained into the Colombian national popular culture and history are two cumbia melodies, “La Pollera Colora” and “La Cumbia Cienaguera,” celebrating all of Colombia.

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According to National Geographic, traditional cumbia music is played on African and Amerindian percussion instruments, flutes and drums, but its lyrics are primarily Spanish with some African and Amerindian words added in. Specifically, the percussion instruments used are the tambor mayor (log drum with a goat skin head), the tambor llamador (a smaller version of the tambor mayor), the tamora (large two-headed drum played with sticks), maracas and guache (bamboo tube filled with seeds), played by the conjunto de cumbia (percussion ensemble). A second ensemble, the conjunto de gait (woodwind ensemble of cactus wood flutes called gaitas), plays the melody. Many scholars of ethnic music consider other Latin rhythms as having roots in cumbia, including salsa, son and merengue.


Danced by couples, the woman holds a lit candle and playfully waves her long wide white skirt. The man dances behind her with one hand behind his back and the other holding his sombrero hipihapa (hat) that he waves. Dance steps coincide with each beat. Men also carry a red panuelo (scarf) wrapped around their necks, waved in circles in the air or held together with the woman. Each couple takes its turn in the center where she lifts her skirt, simultaneously enticing him closer and pushing him away.